If Juliana Felisberta and Larissa Franca's long and victorious beach volleyball partnership were to be described in just one word, it would most likely be ‘intense’. In everything they did together, on or off the court, the Brazilians never gave less than one hundred per cent.
That mindset paid off immensely for them, as besides winning basically every title that was out there to be won outside of the Olympics, the Brazilians enchanted a generation of fans around the world between 2004 and 2012, when they played together.
No team on the planet has won more FIVB World Tour gold medals than them. They collected 45 of those in their nine years together to go with 20 silver and 17 bronze. Simply put, they only missed the podium in 26 of the 108 international tournaments in which they shared the courts.
Their list of accolades also includes the 2011 FIVB World Championships title, two gold medals at the Pan-American Games and the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
“We had a wonderful history in beach volleyball and that makes me really proud,” Larissa commented when the team split at the end of the 2012 season. “People keep asking me if we’re the best team of all-time and I don’t have an answer for that, but I think it’s very unlikely another team will ever be able to match what we did because it’s difficult to remain at a high level for such a long time. When people remember us, they’ll think of a winning team and that’s something I’ll carry for the rest of my life.”
For years, Juliana and Larissa were perhaps the only team in the world to be on par with Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor. The battles between them were legendary, with one of them, a gold medal match in Mexico, in 2005, setting a new record in the sport for the longest match ever.
Their most notable victory against the Americans, at the final of the 2011 World Championships, in Rome, gave the Brazilians their most memorable title, but the one they looked forward to the most never really materialized.
The world was expecting a meeting between the teams, the best on the planet at the time, in the gold medal match of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but Juliana sustained a knee injury a few months before the Games and couldn’t compete. In London, four years later, she was in great form, but Larissa and her were upset by Americans April Ross and Jennifer Kessy in the semifinals and had to settle for bronze.
“I don’t want to be unfair to any other team, but I really believe beach volleyball deserved an Olympic gold medal match between Juliana/Larissa and Walsh/May,” Juliana reflected. “We had so many amazing battles and to have had one of them on the biggest stage of our sport, I think it would have done a lot of good to beach volleyball.”
Long-term partnerships in beach volleyball often lead to complicated relationships and Juliana and Larissa were no exception. They were extremely successful, but their trajectory as a team also gained notoriety due to the heated discussions and intense arguments they had during their matches.
“Sometimes I wonder if we would have been as successful as we were with a different approach, but at the end that’s how we accomplished what we did,” Juliana added. “Besides the extended coexistence, we also had to deal with a huge amount of pressure for results. In any relationship, you take good and bad things from the other person and it was the same with us. We both have strong personalities, so at times it was difficult for us to adapt to each other, but I wouldn’t have done it any differently.”
After their decision to split, they followed opposite paths. Juliana has remained active since then and has spent time competing on the World Tour with six different partners, having won medals with four of them, most notably Maria Elisa Antonelli, with whom she collected two golds and secured bronze at the 2015 World Championship.
Larissa, on the other hand, took a break immediately after the end of their partnership, returning to the courts in 2014 to join Talita Antunes, with whom she won 16 World Tour gold medals in three and half seasons. The team finished fourth at the Rio 2016 Olympics and won bronze at the 2017 World Championship.
Juliana, who is now 37, still plays competitively, mostly on the Brazilian Tour with Josi Alves. Larissa retired at the end of the 2017 season, but is currently working on a comeback to partner with her wife, Lili Maestrini, at the age of 38.
The fact that these two legends are still active is an inspiration for young Brazilian beach volleyball players, but they became references in their country long ago. Rebecca Cavalcanti, who currently ranks fourth in the FIVB World Rankings with Ana Patricia Silva, had the opportunity to share training sessions with both of them growing up and acknowledges the influence they had on her career.
“When I first started playing we used to practice at the same facility and I’d just sit there and watch them,” said Rebecca, who partnered with Juliana to win a Brazilian Tour event in 2017. “We also shared the same coach and at times he’d put me to practice with Larissa because we were both defenders and it was unbelievable what she could do. I’d try to keep up with her and I’d leave every session exhausted, also because she was always pushing me to do better. We’re still good friends and talk often and I really look up to her.”
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